Coffee culture and contemporary art
It's cold in Pristina and the air smells of the coals that are used for heating. In spite of the cold, the main avenue is always crowded in the evenings, even on weekdays. Pristina has a big coffee culture so the first thing I’m offered upon arrival at the National Gallery of Kosovo is coffee. "You have to stay on a caffeinated level here," Arta Bunjaku Agani, director of the National Gallery, tells me.
By An Paenhuysen
Arta is an unusual museum director: she doesn’t do art speak and she doesn’t beat around the bush. I love her directness. She already worked for the National Gallery in the 2000s but because of contract problems she left, promising only to come back in the position of a director. And so she did. Right on!
Historical buildings for art exhibitions
The National Gallery is located in a historical building that has small windows. I’m told that in former times of vendettas those small windows were ideal to peek out without being seen. In front of the National Gallery is another historical building that definitely steals the thunder. The National Library is an amazing example of brutalist architecture, built in 1982. Imagine a huge concrete slab combined with 99 domes resembling the white hats of the national outfit, and all this covered by a metal fishing net. There’s a running joke about the building. A politician was asked at the inauguration if he liked the building. He said he’d like it if they would take down the scaffolding.
Half of the participants in my feminist art workshop at the Kosova National Art Gallery are male. In Germany, no man would think of visiting a feminist workshop. Two graphic designers tell me that they’re interested because "they haven’t looked yet at things from that perspective."
The National Library is not the only contemporary art institute in Pristina: The Stacion - Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina was started in 2006 by the artist and designer Albert Heta and the architect Vala Osmani. They show me the flyer of their 2017 summer school that included presentations of international artists and theoreticians such as Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina.
A sports club turns into an art space
It’s a Wednesday evening and I’m at the Klubi I Boksit, a former boxing club turned into an art space. It’s run by a a few organizations and one of them has an exhibition opening that night called Memories on the Wheel. It’s a documentary display about the cultural heritage and collective memory of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo. Klubi I Boksit is not in the best architectural state, so the art works are displayed on mobile walls. The place is packed. There’s live music, people are dancing and singing along, and delicious appetizers are being served. When I half close my eyes, I imagine being back in 1990s Berlin when events used to have this particular vibe. Except for the good food; that never happened in Berlin.
At the opening party, a man with shiny earrings catches my attention. His name is Astrit Ismaili, who lives between Amsterdam and Pristina. A rarity in Kosovo, it seems, because most artists have a hard time getting a visa for traveling abroad. "Where can I find your art?" I ask him. "On Instagram," he says - very much 21st century. So I post his picture on my Instagram and start to "follow" @astritismaili.
Among performances and paintings
I also take a picture of the artists of the collective Haveit. Earlier that afternoon I visited their show at Motrat, a design office that leaves its ground floor to artists. Naim Spahiu, an artist who also works at the National Gallery, took me there. The show consists of four shopping carts filled with broken glass. They’re the leftovers of a performance. The exhibition is called Baby Blues, which can mean several things in the country of the Newborn. The accompanying press text starts with: "At first wash your hair but don’t let your head’s filth fall on your body because eyes and legs don’t become one." I’m positively intrigued.
Naim gets tea and biscuits and takes me to his studio to meet Lulzim, the curator of the show. He also shows me around to his collection of paintings, which are not only his own but also those of other artists working in his studio. Naim likes to share. He tells me about his former residency program, for which he managed to make a deal with the fancy hotel around the corner. He’s thinking of starting it up again, maybe in the summer. Naim gives me a present when I leave: it’s a cup picturing two ragged tooth brushes painted by artist J. Muja. It says "Two Ugly Sisters."
It seems only logical to end my stay in Pristina with coffee. I do so in the bookstore café Dit e nat. Some zines are pictured on the wall. One of them reads: "I’m excited of a thought."